The man behind Morse

  • Colin Dexter
  • John Thaw

In 2014, Jazz FM Presenter David Freeman interviewed Colin Dexter, the author responsible for Inspector Morse

Few writers in any genre have had quite as much an impact as Colin Dexter. The creator of the much-loved detective Inspector Morse has been awarded an OBE for service to literature and four Crime Writers Association Daggers, as well as the freedom of the city of Oxford (third to be awarded the honour after Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi). Author of thirteen Morse books and numerous short stories, he remains heavily associated with television programs Inspector Morse, Lewis and Endeavour (and is famous for his many fleeting cameos onscreen).

The 83-year-old writer made headlines earlier this year [2014] when it was rumoured he may have written a clause into his will banning any other actor from playing the character after his death so as not to detract from his friend John Thaw’s iconic and definitive performance.

Here Colin and his friend Jazz FM presenter David Freeman discuss Morse, Colin’s early memories and his much-loved teaching career.

Morse is unimaginable without Oxford, but you read Classics at Christ’s College, Cambridge…

I was lucky enough to scrape into Cambridge. When I went there I always wanted to do Classics, Latin and Greek. But I had a bit of a disadvantage because everyone expected me to do them well. So I wrote to the college and said ‘Why don’t you want me? I’ll re-read Homer’s Odyssey and then I’ll be a bit better than I was when I came to see you.’ The chap wrote back to me, bless his heart, and said: ‘Don’t worry too much about Homer. Read Middlemarch. If you read that I’ll transfer you to the classics department.’

After graduating you became a schoolmaster and were very fond of teaching. Why did you stop in 1966?

I’ve had no end of good luck in life except that deafness pursued me and instead of what I should have done, which was being able to say to everybody ‘please speak up, I can’t hear a bloody thing’ I pretended all the time [I could hear]. I’ve had five surgical operations on my ears that aren’t even in the books now. But it was my bad luck to be born into a family with lots of deafness, particularly in later life.

I used to be a very good teacher. I was popular with the boys and girls I taught and the parents. With school teaching I just had this feeling of doing something immediately positive. I was as anxious to get them through the exams as they were – I would just say ‘don’t be a bloody fool, make me and your parents proud!’ I’ve always thought if you work hard enough you can do any bloody thing in life.

But in the end I remember teaching a class that was laughing at me and somebody came up to me afterwards and said: ‘But you can’t hear it, can you?’ I decided I had better pack it in. So I came to live at Oxford. But I would have continued teaching if  not for my hearing.

Were you a fan of detective fiction before writing Morse?

My brother and I would get into the Enid Blyton books but they were only about four pages long. I did love the Sexton Blake stories. The first writer I really enjoyed as a crime writer was the American John Dixon Carr, one of the great writers of the ‘Golden Age’ mysteries, the king of the locked room mystery – somebody’s beheaded or strangled in a room, all the doors are locked from the inside, nobody having the faintest idea how the murderer got in or out…And Agatha Christie I think had more imagination than all the rest of the crime writers put together – I’m not saying the writing or plots are excellent, but the surprises are superb. I wish I had met her because she was a fantastic writer in my opinion.

You are notorious for your fleeting cameo appearances in Inspector Morse episodes. Were you in every one?

Out of all the episodes perhaps the only one in which I didn’t appear was the Australia episode, Promised Land. They took me to one side and said: ‘We can’t really afford to send you…It is very far away, you know…’ And I didn’t mind that at all.

Morse famously shares many of his great passions and vices with you – the beer, The Archers, crosswords, Wagner…Do you still indulge in the same pleasures?

I haven’t had a beer for about fifteen or sixteen years. They told me I was killing myself, but you know, I used to love beer and scotch. I’m still frightened to death of heights as Morse was. And I still don’t like sanctimonious people either!

When did you first fall in love with some of these things?

I remember my brother playing Beethoven’s seventh very loud downstairs at about midnight on a big old wireless. And I ran downstairs saying ‘for Christ’s sake, it’s the middle of the night,’ and his response was: ‘You stay right here and listen to this with me.’ I saw in the second movement tears running down his cheeks. That was one of the great moments of my life: if it meant as much as it obviously did to him, then I might as well join in. And that same feeling happened [to me again] enormously with literature…a wonderful door had opened.

Did you feel protective over your ideas and characters when they were being adapted for television?

In my contract I have it that I have to see all the scripts for Morse, Lewis and Endeavour - I said ‘You’ve got to send them all to me.’

Why would you not want Morse to be portrayed again? Is it as simple as believing nobody can better John Thaw?

The problem [with many adaptations] is everybody says “I think he or she” was better in that role, like what has happened with Poirot. So what we’re not having is someone coming along and saying: “I think he was better than John Thaw.”

The Daily Mail wanted me to write a Christmas story featuring Morse, Lewis, crosswords and Oxford. I said – if you pay me a bit more – what I will do is go back to him at his youth, as the years 18-24 are absolutely crucial.

Have you formed friendships with the actors who have featured in the various Morse adaptations?

Oh yes. Sean Evans who stars in Endeavour is a remarkably fine actor, chiefly because he doesn’t try to copy accents or mannerisms from anything he’s seen before, like they do with Poirot. And Kevin’s [Whately, who played Lewis] always been wonderfully kind to me. And John was a good friend. I’ve always said that we were enormously lucky to get John and Kevin together. I don’t think John was very sociable in many ways, but he was certainly popular with the cast.

For many years we didn’t know what Morse’s first name was. The ‘E’ was there, but did you know his name was going to be Endeavour when you started out?

Oh no. When I decided we were going to have a young Morse I said to my wife Dorothy ‘we’ve got to call him something!’ We had to find something to fit the E…

This article first appeared in the Autumn 2014 edition of Cotswold Homes.